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Finders Keepers

Mark Bowden

Atlantic Monthly Press

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-871-13859-X

Publication Date: 10-15-2002

209 Pages; $23.00

Date Reviewed: 11-06-02  

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Non-Fiction, Mystery, General Fiction

11-23-02, 12-13-02, 01-07-03

Mark Bowden's non-fiction novella 'Finders Keepers' is so enjoyable that it's easy to overlook the considerable craft that went into its creation. Just a little over 200 pages long, it's a one or two-day read -- or more precisely ride. The reader gets strapped in at the beginning by Bowden's scene-setting skill, and is unlikely to look up until the story comes to a quiet and satisfying end. Bowden tells his tale with humor and panache. His characters are grungy, the situations they find themselves in are seedy, and everybody's a liar. Bowden creates South Philadelphia's streets with the perfect combination of attitude and detail. The story is ostensibly true, but there are no references and there is no index. 'Finders Keepers' is a fascinating mixture of truth and fiction, of what people said and what they did, and how the same events were viewed by others. Bowden's success is that he manages to make the reader feel as if they've experienced a truth in reading the work, even if nobody in the work told the truth about anything.

Most of the book's events are fairly solid. On February 26, 1981, Joey Coyle, an unemployed dockworker and methadrine user, was getting a ride to score some drugs with John and Jed, two younger men from his neighborhood. As they drove through the bleak urban wasteland of South Philly's industrial district, the car had to drive around a yellow plastic tub that sat in the pothole-ridden street. Joey made the John stop so Joey could grab the tub; he thought it might make a good toolbox. Inside the tub, Joey discovered two canvas bags that contained a total of $1.2 million in unmarked $100.00 bills.

From this point on, the reader will be riveted by the story of Joey's journey with the missing million-two. Few will be able to keep themselves from following Joey and imagining what they themselves would do with the money, as opposed to what Joey does. Speed, unemployment, grinding poverty, alcohol and boredom don't lead Joey down the most positive path he could have taken. Moreover, there's a lot of debate that goes on, both within the book and within the reader's mind, about what is the best path.

Bowden can stimulate serious ethical thought while keeping the reader laughing out loud on a regular basis, shouting at the book and gesticulating wildly as Joey makes another bonehead move. The humor is heady in this book, but tinged with a very dark undertone that works to keep the slight narrative from seeming too slight. Developed from a series of articles for a magazine, 'Finders Keepers', provides enough depth of character and sustains the rocket-like thrust of its plot so that it reads like a novel.

The dialectic between the idea that this is reportage of a series of factual events and the fact that those relating the events are at best untrustworthy and at worst self-contradictory creates a really unusual tension. If the events weren't so bleakly hilarious, this might create a bit of a distraction. But in the face of Joey Coyle's almost slapstick responses to his unfolding predicament, the device of the untrustworthy non-fictional narrator becomes a fascinating foil. Bowden does eventually bring himself into the narrative in the somber coda. There's much to enjoy in 'Finders Keepers'. This thrilling and funny non-fiction bon-bon may have more staying power than one would expect.